William Faulkner is considered one of the world's greatest novelists. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which is the highest prize that can be awarded to a writer. In his acceptance speech, he said that the writer must be concerned with the human heart in conflict with itself. Certainly, the struggles of Joe Christmas to understand himself could be classified as the human heart in conflict.
Faulkner came from a rather distinguished Mississippi family. His grandfather, Colonel William Culbert Falkner (the "u" was added to Faulkner's name by mistake when his first novel was published, and Faulkner retained this spelling), came to Mississippi from South Carolina during the first part of the nineteenth century. The colonel appears in many of Faulkner's novels under the name of Colonel John Sartoris. And we learn in Light in August that Joanna Burden's grandfather and half brother were killed by Colonel Sartoris.
While Light in August is not Faulkner's most difficult novel to read, it is generally considered to be his most difficult one to understand. Various interpretations of the novels have been made, and, therefore, this guide offers only one of many ways of viewing this complex masterpiece.
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, but his family soon moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Almost all of his novels take place in and around Oxford, which he renames Jefferson, Mississippi. In his next novel, Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner will include a map of this county and will show where many events in Light in August occurred.
Colonel William Falkner had a rather distinguished career as a soldier both in the Mexican War and in the American Civil War. During the Civil War, Falkner's hot temper caused him to be demoted from full colonel to lieutenant colonel. After the war, Falkner was heavily involved in the trials of the reconstruction period. He killed several men during this time and became a rather notorious figure. (Thus the narration of Joanna Burden's grandfather's death at the hands of Colonel Sartoris has the ring of historical accuracy.) Colonel Falkner also built a railroad, ran for public office, and he was finally killed by one of his rivals. During all of these involved activities, he took time to write one of the nation's best sellers, The White Rose of Memphis, which appeared in 1880. He also wrote two other books but only his first was an outstanding success. The intervening members of the Falkner family are not quite so distinguished as was the great-grandfather.
In Sartoris, Faulkner's third novel, he placed his works in a mythological county. Most of the rest of his novels take place in this county. Thus, characters like Gavin Stevens, the farmer Armstid, and the Burdens appear in other novels dealing with Jefferson, the fictional county seat. One of Faulkner's great achievements is the creation of this imaginary county. He worked out this plan so carefully that a minor character in one novel — such as Gavin Stevens in this novel — will become a central character in a later work.
In all of his work, Faulkner used new techniques to express his views of man's position in the modern world. In his early works, Faulkner viewed with despair man's position in the universe. He saw man as a weak creature incapable of rising above his selfish needs. Later, Faulkner's view changed. In his more recent works, he sees man as potentially great, or in Faulkner's own words, man shall "not only endure; he will prevail." But in almost all of his novels, Faulkner penetrated deeply into the psychological motivations for man's actions and investigated man's dilemma in the modern world. Of his achievements, Light in August is considered one of the greatest, and in the character of Joe Christmas, many critics think that we have our only tragic figure in twentieth-century literature.